Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.
—3 JOHN 2, NIV
FAST WITH THE AIM OF IMPROVING THE WHOLE SELF. In the first half of this book I reviewed the immense benefits of fasting on human health, mostly as it relates to body and mind. But, aside from the Christian fasts I examined in the previous chapter, are there some spiritual benefits to fasting? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding “yes!” This is why I started shifting in the previous chapter from looking at physical studies of fasting to a more holistic view that encompasses spirit, soul, and body. In the second half of this book my emphasis will be the implications of fasting for the health of the inner person—and therefore the whole person.
In the preceding chapter I examined the role of religious fasting on human health. While these scientific studies are preliminary, they found similar improvements in health biomarkers, which I reviewed in the first eight chapters. As I mentioned, these studies found increased compliance from the participants, chiefly because their major goal in fasting was spiritual. Purpose is a powerful force, a topic I addressed in an earlier book, The Search for Meaning: Living for a Higher Purpose. When your focus shifts from merely losing weight to maintaining a healthy spiritual, physical, and mental balance, you will reap immense benefits from fasting. There is something about fasting that helps develop moderation, instills self-discipline, and affects not only the body but also the spirit, giving it the opportunity to self-renew.
It is no wonder that John prayed that his friend Gaius would live in good health. The powerful health benefits of fasting for the human body ought to get your attention. Good health is certainly an important goal for everyone. That health involves both the mind and the body. It is the true picture of wellness: a healthy and fulfilling life. This is the kind of life in which health span is improved for the body and mind, and the person is enabled to enjoy a prosperous spiritual life. This is total well-being that affects body, mind (or soul), and spirit. There is no escaping it—to feel truly fulfilled in this world we live in, we not only have to take care of the body, but we must also take care of our mental and spiritual health. When we neglect any one of those three aspects, our lives tilt out of balance. Fortunately fasting impacts all three aspects positively.
To focus exclusively on physical health benefits is to glimpse a limited picture. Fasting has been practiced for centuries, mostly for spiritual reasons. There are good reasons for that, as you shall see in the chapters that follow. It is only in recent times that the physical health benefits have come to our attention. As wonderful as those health benefits are, they cannot supplant fasting’s spiritual benefits. Clearly the spiritual and health gains from fasting are complementary and mutually beneficial.
A human being is essentially spirit, has a soul (mind, will, and emotions), and lives in a body. Our body is the “house” in which we live and exercise our being on this planet Earth. While it is true that fasting impacts primarily the human “house,” this primary benefit translates to other benefits for the soul and spirit. When the body is healthy, the rest of the three-part being is able to function freely. Also, during times of fasting we train our inner being to refrain, choose discipline, refuse overindulgence, and celebrate a life that goes deeper than food, drink, and material existence.
Given the spiritual basis of fasting, it is important to fast with both spiritual and physical goals in mind. Shortly I will provide some practical suggestions about different kinds of fasts you can follow. Still, it is up to you to choose a fasting program that works for you. It may be the Daniel fast, where you dedicate about twenty-one days to a partial fast that features mainly fruits and vegetables. Or you may choose to fast and renew yourself for a day—or two or three—a week. Or you may cut back 20 percent or so of your daily energy intake and live a “fasted lifestyle.”
Whichever practice you choose, you need to see this season as a time to renew the whole person. Such days of fasting can present a huge opportunity to read a book, pray, meditate and draw closer to God, reevaluate the path you are on in life, intercede for a hurting friend and a broken world, or lend a helping hand to building your community. After all, fasting teaches us to cut back a bit on indulging self and make life a little less about us. In this sense, fasting can help us see the big picture about life.
If you are only concerned about weight loss and looks, you may lose an amazing opportunity to tap into a huge aspect of fasting that has benefited generations past. For sure, looking good and feeling good is important. However, being healthy physically, spiritually, and mentally is ultimately the most important issue. Life is certainly more than our appearance. You are likely to become exhausted if your main goal is to lose weight and look good. Past scientific studies have shown that people who are overly concerned about their weight are more likely to develop eating disorders.1
There are a number of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia nervosa. Like every good thing, calorie restriction (fasting) can be abused, which can lead to disorders. While people with orthorexia nervosa become excessively preoccupied with avoiding food considered unhealthy, individuals with anorexia nervosa are so preoccupied with losing weight that they end up losing far too much. On the other hand, fanatical alternate day or intermittent fasting can lead to development of bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder (usually after fasting). Moderation is a virtue. Accept your freedom from fads and the transient opinions of others. Instead, embark on a fasting and calorie-restricted journey that is right for you.
Understanding your identity as a spiritual being brings freedom from excessive fear of gaining weight and losing your good looks. Fasting will help you lose weight, but I have intentionally not highlighted that aspect because of the tendency to turn fasting into just another weight-loss program. In fact, in some cases individuals who are already too concerned about their weight and physical appearance may develop anorexia after a prolonged fasting program. On the other hand, calorie restriction (fasting) can indeed be a cure for anorexia when there is an emphasis on the whole person. You are more than your weight. You are spirit, you have a soul, and you live in this “house” called a body. Accept the immeasurable worth of the real you.
For sure we ought to be legitimately concerned about excessive weight due to the fact that it increases the risk for certain chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. But one can become unduly concerned about weight. We can define ourselves and people around us by our BMI (body mass index) reading. There is much more to a person than his or her weight. At the end of the day the essence of our being isn’t merely physical, but spiritual.
On the other spectrum of anorexia are two other eating disorders known as bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. What these two disorders have in common is the tendency (sometimes uncontrollable) to overeat and gorge oneself. While bulimia nervosa follows the episode of excessive eating with purging (usually vomiting), binge eating disorder tends not to do this. Binge eating disorder seems to be the most prevalent eating disorder in the United States. In fact, about 30 percent of those who are overweight suffer from binge eating disorder.
Although fasting can help with such disorders,2 it is true that some individuals tend to overeat immediately after fasting. So, choosing a fasting program and a tempo that works for you is important. Let moderation guide you. See fasting as a spiritual discipline that enriches your whole being, not a period of painful denial that you are so looking forward to finishing. When you train yourself to fast in a way that suits your physiology and style, you won’t rush to gorge on food afterward. It gradually becomes a lifestyle and a lifelong habit. When this happens, fasting can become a remedy for binge eating disorders.
My experience has been that when individuals restrict their energy intake with the whole picture in mind—spirit, soul, and body—this higher purpose tends to constrain them from gorging themselves after fasting periods. They know there is a higher purpose for their action. It isn’t just self-denial for its own sake. Instead, they view fasting as self-denial that makes the whole person better. This process not only trains the body, but also aligns spirit and soul with eternal principles. This way, fasting isn’t seen as a punishment to quickly run away from (in the form of gorging self) at the slightest opportunity, but a celebrated, self-imposed discipline that makes the whole person better.
A sustainable approach
Before discussing various fasting plans, I want to examine how to approach choosing a fasting program that is right for you. It is your responsibility to choose the kind of fasting that works for you in the long run. This is what I call fasting for life: the kind of lifestyle that is both sustainable and beneficial in the long term. Also, by “fasting for life,” I mean fasting in such a way that you experience fullness of life, complete wellness, and the “all-may-go-well-with-you” kind of life John wrote about. Resist the temptation to become obsessed with one component of the various blessings of fasting.
Fasting can be useful for improving health span and reducing our risk of such chronic diseases as diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. But fasting is also a powerful spiritual tool that helps us stay in tune with God and enjoy a full, balanced life. Both aspects of fasting are important, but in my opinion to shift focus from spiritual to solely health will be a mistake. Fasting will help you lose weight; in almost all the studies referenced in the first section, nearly all the subjects involved in each study did so. However, to refocus fasting efforts just to lose weight is, to say the least, myopic. Fast in such a way that you maximize fasting’s health, mental, and spiritual benefits. After all, it is all about attitude, which is why you must choose a sustainable plan. Don’t become too ambitious and decide to fast for forty days when you have not yet done two days. Take it one step at a time. Start now to cut back on your calorie intake and to intentionally fast from time to time, but avoid going to extremes.
There is a good reason for describing fasting as a “discipline.” Every discipline requires training, practice, consistency, and a measure of sacrifice. Fasting is a spiritual sacrifice, one that is self-imposed. There is a cost—denying yourself food at a regular rate is not going to be a lot of fun. This is probably why many people don’t fast; it takes discipline. You have to choose to make this sacrifice.
This is important because some people may read about these benefits of fasting discussed earlier and feel motivated enough to fast periodically. That is a wonderful thing. But you have to realize that fasting is in some ways a painful practice, and mentally commit to do it anyway. I think the initial sacrifice involved in fasting seems to come as something of a shock to people who are just starting. Often, this initial pain results in the discontinuation of the program. Whenever you start a fast, your body will likely go into a kind of “revolt.” Denying it a constant supply of food and chemicals is too much of a sacrifice, leaving you feeling weak, tired, and maybe even dizzy. But as everyone who fasts can tell you, that all-consuming feeling of pain and weakness gets better as you persist.
Remember, biomedical scientists view fasting as a biological stressor—such initial reactions are a result of this mild biological stress. However, as you persevere, your body sets in motion a range of biochemical processes to counter this new “stress.” Recall that it is this hormetic effect that makes fasting so beneficial.
So, what is the point? Fasting involves a cost, so accept this fact firmly before choosing to fast. Then persevere. In this initial stress-hormesis phase, it is also important to choose a plan that gradually increases in length and intensity. For example, if you haven’t fasted for a long time, start with skipping breakfast; fast until noon. After a while, skip breakfast and lunch, and eat a normal meal in the evening—and so on.
Training and practice
Training and practice are important elements of a disciplined life. It takes a while for your body to be trained to adjust to the stress of fasting, and to expect it. This is called “conditioning.” However, this training won’t occur without the regular practice of fasting. In the peer-reviewed, published studies I examined, researchers found fasting is often more beneficial if the compliance level is very high over a relatively long period of time. In other words, if fasting is going to be beneficial to you, spiritually and health-wise, then you have to make a practice of it. Consistency is vital. If you are fasting once a week, say on Wednesdays from morning until night, make this an ongoing routine. After a while your body will “expect” this “stress.” It grows conditioned to release hormetic processes that turn out to be beneficial in the long run. This is why you must train yourself to be consistent regardless of the fasting plan you choose.
Furthermore, your choice of fasting program must be guided by sustainability. Ask yourself, “Can I sustain this plan at this stage of my life?” Don’t choose a fast just to make an impression, whether on yourself or on others. It is futile to choose a fast that you cannot maintain or sustain. Life is a journey, so the fasting that is right for you today may not work tomorrow in another season of life. Likewise, just because you did certain kinds of fasts in the past does not mean you shouldn’t explore other options that are more fitting for you today.
Of course, you are free to try any plan or combination of plans that works for you at any given period. After all, it’s your life, so you should enjoy the fasting experiment. Don’t beat yourself up if you fail with a particular plan. Try again and choose a different one, or make up your own. As long as you are intentionally working on cutting down calorie intake, you are doing great. This is not a dieting fad to get worked up about. This is fasting for the long haul. It is OK to falter once in a while. This is hoping that every step you take in this journey represents a celebrated “arrival.”
Finally, remember that the scientific definition of fasting is simply cutting your total energy intake by 20 to 40 percent without incurring malnutrition. While spiritual fasting may take different forms, it is important to bear in mind that your body can only sustain a certain amount of stress. There is a limit to hormesis, which means you must listen to your body. If you cut your energy intake too much too quickly, fasting may end up being a disadvantage. There is only so much stress the biological system can endure, after which hormetic benefits reach a point of diminishing returns.
You have to be wise about choosing a fasting type. I know that some church groups can become legalistic about fasting. Those who fall into this trap all but mandate that members follow a certain kind of fast no matter what. Such rigidity does not effectively give room for grace and flexibility. What this does is place a certain amount of guilt on folks that unless they do exactly the fast their church demands and how it demands it, they are doing something wrong and therefore will not be blessed. Biomedically speaking, this kind of attitude is dangerous. While some members can absorb several days of fasting and still be OK, that may not be appropriate for everyone. A better approach to corporate fasting is to state the group’s fasting goals. Then, show members enough grace and flexibility to experience the joy of fasting and praying together, even if they don’t meet certain guidelines.